Professor Fred Magdoff, former chair of the plant and soil science department at the University of Vermont, visited campus Thursday and highlighted Yale’s famous political diversity. Cohosted by Margins: Student Perspectives from the Left, Fossil Free Yale, and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, his talk on “Capitalism and the Climate Change Crisis” demonstrated that intellectual radicalism is alive and well within the Yale community.
Magdoff, who writes frequently for the Monthly Review, began by discussing current environmental challenges. “Human-induced environmental damage is nothing new,” he said, but has been “fairly localized” until recently. Climate change, in contrast, “has potential to threaten human societies,” and its effects are wide-ranging, from saltwater intrusion in the Mekong delta to the decline of cod fishing in the North Atlantic. A global solution is in order.
And warming temperatures are not the twenty-first century’s only threat. Magdoff cited acidification of the oceans, the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, fires in Indonesia, and pollution in the United States itself as examples of other ongoing environmental problems, some of which are linked to climate change.
Magdoff attributed this constellation of issues to a fundamental flaw in capitalism. Other observers view them as “externalities” of the system, the results of human greed, or consequences of industrialization, he said, but they are inherent in a market economy: since growth “is the way the system has to work,” capitalism always produces an excess of goods and services, consumes too many natural resources, and pollutes the environment to an unsustainable degree.
Government efforts at regulation, he argued, are not sufficient – since the continued existence of the economy depends on growth in spending, regulations cannot strike at the heart of the problem and will not rein in the excesses of capitalism effectively. The environmental consequences – pollution, deforestation, rises in temperature – are dire.
The solution is a wholesale replacement of the current economic system. Addressing global problems collectively and acting responsibly to protect the interests of future generations, Magdoff said, requires abandoning an economy in which goods and services are produced for profit rather than to meet consumer needs.
But, more fundamentally, this solution to the crisis hinges on bringing out the best in the human spirit. All societies encourage or discourage certain human traits, he said, but capitalism in particular stifles “cooperation, sharing, empathy, and altruism,” which are exactly the qualities we need to make responsible and informed decisions about our future. Any system that is to be effective in the long run must promote them.
Although some members of the Yale community may not support economic reorganization, Magdoff’s criticism of capitalism should prevent us from being complacent about its flaws. Whether or not we object fundamentally to a market economy, we should remember that we cannot afford to ignore the problems that accompany it all too often.